If you think the title of this post is an answer to the question, you’d be wrong. It’s more complex than that.
There are two ways to look at it. If I meet someone, and that person introduces himself to me under a certain name, then that is the name I would use. This is the case even if it’s very clear I’m addressing a man in drag, which is what Bruce Jenner is, despite all the special pleading to the contrary. Furthermore, no one would ask in normal conversation if a person has a penis or a vagina.
We accept the identity people offer to us. It’s a simple matter of etiquette and charity. We don’t have to be needlessly cruel or provocative, especially to those who are mentally or emotionally troubled. If I met him and he said, “Call me Caitlyn,” I would. There’s no need to be a jerk about it.
And, yes, I would do the same thing if someone introduced himself as Jesus. (Indeed, I have, although that was mostly a case of not wanting to be stabbed.)
People change their names all the time, whether it’s Malcolm X or John Mellencamp or The Artist Former Known as Prince and Then as a Symbol and Now as Prince Again. I guess we could call him The Olympian Formerly Known as Bruce.
But there’s a second issue at hand in this case. Bruce Jenner is a celebrity, and it is unlikely most us of will have any opportunity or reason to shake his hand and address him directly. Thus, the question has another aspect: do we acknowledge his new identity and thus confirm that a person’s sex (I do not use the word “gender” in this context: nouns have genders, not people) is not a quality of his physical being but a matter of choice?
Here we get into deeper psychological, social, and political waters.
First, we have to state clearly what is no longer clear to society: there are two sexes, and they are defined by our bodies not by our minds. Sexual embodiedness is very simple: a human being with a penis is a male, and human being with a vagina is a female. The existence of intersex humans with mixed or indeterminate genitalia does not give rise to a third sex, since it is merely a biological anomaly like a malformed limb or cleft palate. We cannot deviate from this binary approach to sex without a giant tottering bulwark of theory and dogma, sustained by a constant level of shrill hysteria and demonization of differing opinions.
Gender identity disorder is a disconnect between the embodied sex of an individual and his psychological perception of that sex. It is a very real condition, and needs to be considered and treated with compassion. It is, very clearly, a mental illness. (NOTE: I wrote a long tangent on my expansive use of the phrase “mental illness” as a person suffering from mental illness. It will go up when it’s ready, and I hope it deepens this point.)
Modern mainstream psychology has been trend-chasing since the early 1970s, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) suddenly caved to protests from the gay community and removed the designation of homosexuality from the standard diagnostic rubrics. This was based on the evidence of … well, nothing at all, really. No new science was presented to reverse decades of standard practice. It was merely a matter of assuaging hurt feelings.
Something similar is going on with transsexuals now. If a person with a perfectly healthy male body–such as, say, the male winner of the Olympic decathalon–claims to be a woman, that’s a delusion. Bruce Jenner may call himself Caitlyn, but “he” will never be a “she.”
Since it’s a delusion, the question arises: how best to treat it? Attempting to heal the dysmorphia and bring the body and mind into alignment, accepting the dymorphic disorder and living as the opposite of your physical sex, or undergoing chemical and surgical mutilation to create in the body a simulacra of the opposite sex?
Morally, the last one is a non-starter. Scientifically, it’s a pretty dubious proposition as well. There’s no shortage of post-operative transsexuals who deeply regret this irreversible decision. Mutilating a healthy body is the very opposite of medical care.
As for living as the preferred sex through appearance and behavior, that’s something that would normally best be decided by a competent therapist in collaboration with the patient. We’re in the Silly Season, however, when people with gender identity disorder are the new ascendant class being used to batter society into compliance with a new social-sexual order. Issues of mental health have been weaponized to change our fundamental beliefs with a religious fervor that is alarming. as Brendan O’Neill observes:
With its millions of agog followers, its worship of an iconic image, its insistence we all ‘bow down’, the Cult of Caitlyn gives Catholic mariolatry a run for its money in the blind-devotion stakes. And of course, as with all venerated icons, anyone who refuses to recognise the truth of Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair cover has faced mob punishment or finger-wagging corrections of their goddess-defying blasphemy.
So when Drake Bell, a former American child star, tweeted ‘Sorry… still calling you Bruce’, he became the subject of global fury. The Cult of Caitlyn went insane. Even after Bell deleted his blasphemous comment, tweeters mauled him, suggesting he deactivate his Twitter account, or better still, ‘deactivate his life’. Meanwhile, a Twitter robot called @she_not_he has been set up to correct any ‘misgendering’ of Caitlyn. Winning high praise from much of the media, this bot is ‘scrubbing Twitter, looking for anyone who uses the “he” pronoun in conjunction with Caitlyn Jenner’s name’. The bot’s inventor says he is delighted that these misgendering miscreants have been ‘apologetic in their replies to the bot’, and ‘some have even deleted their original tweet’.
For this reason, in public discussion on the issue, I don’t see how we can use female pronouns or even his assumed name in public discourse. It’s moved beyond simple courtesy and into a public, political statement. We are being stampeded to recognize someone as something they are not, and it has serious ramifications. There is no such thing as “gay marriage” in the same way there is no such thing as a “square circle,” and there is no way on earth for a male to “become” a female.
Discussing this issue is going to be hard, because the two sides of the argument are talking at cross purposes. We must always be charitable, never be cruel, and always realize that a damaged person is yearning for healing. However, the very language I use in this piece will be targeted as hate speech. There is no “winning” this debate, and it isn’t really even a debate. It’s two entrenched sides yelling their points across the wall, with bigots on both sides chiming in for effect. I have no doubt that transsexual people are subjected to misery at the hands of haters, and I deplore it. (And if you think I’m insulting someone by saying he’s mentally ill, then you are part of a problem I’ve been dealing with for a long time.)
O’Neill is right, there is a tyranny and a religious zealotry surrounding this cultural moment that points to a diseased society. Magazines use stylists, make-up, and Photoshop to create illusions of beauty in women all the time, and feminists resent the hell out of it for creating unrealistic expectations of beauty. Now that they’ve turned those same tools on a man to create a grotesque illusion of femininity, we’re supposed to applaud?
I have a more serious reason for resisting it. Normalization of transsexualism is not just the trailing edge of the gay rights movement: it’s the leading edge of the transhumanism movement. It’s a deeply gnostic sense of the body that is at cross-purposes with a healthy understanding of the individual. It’s also driven by the idea that we can redefine fundamental issues of humanity by mere acts of will. It is the Nietzschean will to power applied, forcefully, to the body and sexuality itself.
It’s bad enough when this will to power warps instruments of civilization such as the family and marriage, but in transhumanism it seeks to bend the meaning of our embodied being. Nothing good can come of this.
NOTE: Someone who would not agree with this post at all is the writer at Catholic Transgender. However, it’s a thoughtful site that offers another dimension to the discussion, and I offer the link in the interest of providing another voice.